Six young men and women board a roller coaster at an amusement park. This roller coaster takes them through some kind of space/time warp into the realm of Dungeons and Dragons. There they meet Dungeon Master, a powerful wizard who becomes their guide, mentor, and primary ally. He gives them magical weapons coveted by Vengar, another powerful wizard who becomes the primary villain. The young ones spend each episode searching for a way back home.
Hank the Ranger - The de facto leader of the group and all-around great guy. Hank isn't always sure of himself but he does his best to keep the group together, safe, and focused on getting home. He carries a magic bow that shoots an unlimited supply of light arrows. Hank can use the bow very, very well. He can also perform various tricks with the arrows, including using them as lassos.
Eric the Cavalier - Eric seems to be the group's "pity friend" and the rest of the kids are always making fun of him. He's a chronic complainer who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, though he always rises to the occasion when it is required of him. Eric carries a magic shield that nothing can penetrate, although it can be knocked out of his hands. Dungeon Master must see a greater strength within Eric because it is to Eric that Dungeon Master entrusts his power when he decides to take a day off.
Sheila the Thief - Sheila is braver than she thinks she is. She seems to be the least optimistic about getting home, though she displays a grim determination to do so. Sheila is quite selfless, often being the one who wants to stop and help strangers in trouble. She wears a magic cloak that makes her invisible when she dons the hood. Despite her title, she normally uses the cloak to spy rather than steal. She is Bobby's older sister and is quite protective of him.
Bobby the Barbarian - In many ways, Bobby is the heart of the group. When all looks lost, Bobby is usually the one who refuses to give up. He lives up to his title, charging headlong into every battle and fighting with the savagery one would expect of a small child with a powerful weapon. Bobby wields a magic club which can shatter anything and appears to grant him great strength when activated. The club is powerful enough to cause localized earthquakes and destroy large structures in one blow. Bobby must either swing it or bang it on the ground to activate it. Bobby is at least as protective of Sheila as she is of him.
Diana the Acrobat - Diana is the one who has decided to enjoy the whole thing. She never lets any situation get her down and does her best to keep the others cheerful. One suspects that her life back home wasn't all that great since she views their time in the Realm as a grand adventure. Either that or she's an extreme example of a "glass half-full" type. Diana has a magic javelin (though it looks more like a bo staff to me) that grants her incredible agility. It also makes a handy weapon.
Presto the Magician - Presto is a nerd, a dork. He is the stereotype D&D player. His friends don't pick on him but everyone else does. He wears a magic hat which, if he could use it correctly, would make him a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, he almost never manages to pull anything useful out of it. On those occasions which he does, it is usually an accident. This understandably gives Presto very low self-esteem.
Uni - a baby Unicorn who befriends the group during the opening credits. No, really. Not a mere mascot, Uni saves the kids' bacon more than once. During her time with the group, she even learns to bleat a few English words. This is not really as annoying as it sounds. Uni is one of the better "mascot" characters of all time.
Dungeon Master - I take him to be a Dwarf wizard, though I hazily recall that Dwarfs in D&D weren't able to use magic. He is quite possibly the most powerful wizard in the realm and is an unusually morally complex character. On the one hand, he cares about the group and obviously hopes to instill good virtues and bring forth hidden strengths in them. On the other hand, he is quite clearly using them to do things he won't or can't do. Almost all of the group's adventures are spurred on by riddles or advice from Dungeon Master that result in the kids confronting and stopping some evil or injustice ... after going through some real danger. He puts them in plenty of situations that nearly get them killed, all to accomplish what he thinks is the greater good. And yet, he always gives them the choice. The kids (almost) always choose to do the "right" thing, of course, which makes Dungeon Master genuinely proud. When you factor in the high probability that he brought the kids to the Realm in the first place, you end up with one of the best, most complex characters from any American cartoon of the 1980s. In fact, he's a lot like ... a parent: pointing the kids in the right direction, even if it means the journey will be hard, and hoping what he's taught them and their own fortitude will be enough to see them through.
Vengar - Evil Incarnate. Though he is obviously, ahem, "inspired" by Darth Vader, he is a good villain in his own right. He is supremely confident, supremely capable, and really doesn't screw around. Vengar doesn't tolerate openly treacherous underlings, unlike some other villains in these types of cartoons. When a former apprentice crosses him, for example, Vengar kills him. That's right, kills him. (Actually, it appears that he banishes him directly to Hell!) He also openly tries to kill the kids in most episodes. Evil though he is, he isn't evil for the sake of it. Everything he does, he does for a reason, such as increasing his own power or accomplishing some goal. He's also got a sense of honor, which he displays by sparing the kids temporarily should they manage to earn his respect or pay a perceived debt to him. Awesome as he is, Vengar has the unfortunate habit of doing something incredibly stupid in the last few seconds which allows him to be defeated. However, as a villain, he is on a higher plateau than, say, Mumm-Ra or Cobra Commander. In fact, I'd even place him above pre-movie Megatron (that whole "not tolerating treacherous underlings" thing). Vengar can only be destroyed temporarily; he will always regain his physical form after being dead a short time -- with one exception.
Tiamat - A dragon with five heads: one red (fire), one white (ice), one green (chlorine gas), one blue (lightning), and one black (acid?). Tiamat is perhaps the only creature capable of killing Vengar permanently. Tiamat is wicked cool and her infrequent appearances are pure pleasure.
When I was four and five years old, Dungeons and Dragons was the greatest thing in the world. I got up early every Saturday to watch it. Hank was the kind of guy I wished I had for a big brother, Bobby was the kind of kid I wished I was, Eric was so funny, I always hoped Presto would get his hat to work right, Diana was easy to root for, and Sheila ... more on her later. I believe I actually cried when it was cancelled; I was so sad those guys never found the way home. They and the Realm had worked their way into my heart.
Now almost twenty-four years later, Dungeons and Dragons is still the greatest thing in the world. When I watch COPS, or Voltron, or TransFormers, or any other cartoon from my childhood, it is through the eyes of an adult. I still like them but, not the same way. I realize that they really weren't that good and enjoy them now the same way I would any other bad, but fun, movie. He-Man is an exception, I think it genuinely is good, but in the sense that it was a show that was thoughtful and well-made, not just a thirty-minute commercial.
However, when I watch Dungeons and Dragons, I'm five years old again. I'm right there with Hank, Eric, and the others. I get scared when Vengar shows up. I laugh when Eric does something stupid. I smile when Dungeon Master tells them they did a good job. I cry when Uni gets in trouble and Bobby almost kills himself trying to save her. I'm proud of Presto when he gets his stupid hat to work. I worry about Sheila when she swallows her fear to infiltrate an evil castle. I actually stood up and cheered when a long-suffering slave of Vengar finally made a stand against him.
And, you know what? I'm still going to be sad when the credits come up on the last episode and they still haven't gotten home.
That's how good this show is, folks.
The writing is simply incredible. The kids talk like real kids, act like real friends. The episodes don't pull punches. If a wizard is stealing unicorn horns then, by golly, Uni is going to get her horn stolen and it isn't going to be pleasant to see. If the kids are going through a maze that turns their own minds against them, they're going to get in a fight and say some really nasty, hurtful things to each other. If there's a keep under siege, the people in the keep are going to be quite frank about being prepared to die. Of course, D&D adventures usually ended with a big battle and so do most of these episodes! If the episode should happen to have no real plot, there's so much "stuff" going on you hardly notice. The kids, as I said above, are often in real danger of getting killed and Vengar can be quite frightening with his actions. (He turns into a monster in one episode that, kid you not, scared me to see.) Everything that happens seems serious and even fairly authentic.
This voice cast has become my personal favorite of all time. Willy Ames gets his best role as Hank, same for Peter Cullen as Vengar. The cast has created the most flesh and blood cartoon characters I've ever seen. Even the guest vocal talent for incidental characters is uniformly good. I recognized Jennifer Darling as the voice of a few guest females and was glad to have her around.
I can't stress enough how good, how GREAT, Dungeons and Dragons is but, I must admit there are a couple of episodes that, well, suck. Beauty and the Beholder is bad, the worst in fact, but it's also the first! So chapter-skip right past it, pretend it never existed, and just enjoy the rest of the episodes. There's one episode about a fighter pilot who somehow comes to the Realm that isn't very good, either. Aside from those two, though, the entire series is good.
How Old Are the Kids?
That's something I asked myself a few times. Everyone refers to them as "children" but they are much too mature, physically and mentally, to be only, say, in their early teens. Bobby is identified as being either nine or ten. I'd guess Sheila, Presto, Diana, and Hank are probably sixteen or seventeen. I'm going to go out on a limb and say Eric is the oldest, definitely sixteen if not seventeen.
Diana and Hank are at least old enough to have a little thing going. It's not dwelt upon but watch closely. They can be seen holding each other in quiet moments several times. They can also be observed leaning on each other for support when the gang is locked in Vangar's Prison of Agony.
You can stop reading right here, if you wish. I'm now going to say a few words about one particular character who had a very lasting effect on me. This has nothing to do with the show and is really just me getting my feelings out there.
As I said, I saw this show when I was four. My earliest concrete memories don't start much earlier than that. Sheila, with her short skirt, pale skin, red hair, great legs, and rather big boobs would have been one of my earliest sex symbols -- maybe the earliest. (And don't even pretend you never had a crush on a cartoon!) She must have had a profound effect on me because every -- single -- girlfriend I've ever had has, wait for it, been a pale-skinned redhead with great legs and rather big boobs. There has only been one exception and she was a pale-skinned dark-haired girl with great legs and rather big boobs. Sheila's outfit was purple and purple is the sexiest color for a woman to wear, as far as I'm concerned. Hell, I'm even attracted to the same type of personality as Sheila! Furthermore -- don't make too much of this, now -- but a fetish of mine is women in dangerous situations acting scared. How often do you think Sheila, as the spy and infiltrator, is put in dangerous situations and acts scared? Yeah, quite often!
So, did this cartoon forge the type of woman I'm attracted to and create my sort of disturbing fetish or was that already hard-wired when I was born and Sheila just happened to fit it?
Either way, when I realized this during the course of watching D&D, it really creeped me out. Even some of my friends have commented on it, saying something like, "Hey, she (Sheila) reminds me of [insert name of a former girlfriend]."
Anyway, Dungeons and Dragons is a great cartoon. You should watch it.